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How a woman's gender affects her health

Published On: Oct 24 2012 03:58:51 PM CDT
Updated On: Nov 07 2012 10:15:15 AM CST
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By Betty Russell, Pure Matters

Health can be confusing, regardless of gender. But women have an added disadvantage. In the past, medicine was dominated by a male point of view. And early medical research focused on -- you guessed it -- men.

"Now there's a growing understanding that there are significant gender differences in health care," says Wendy Klein, M.D., an internal medicine and women's health specialist.

A report by the Institute of Medicine emphasized that researchers needed to know the differences in biology between men and women, with the aim of improving medical practice and therapies. Differences between men and women exist at the system, organ, tissue, cellular and sub-cellular level, according to the Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR). Men and women also differ in their response to medications.

Some differences between men and women are obvious. But others go beyond basic anatomy. Here are some ways your health may vary from that of the men in your life.

Different symptoms

Women often don't have "classic" heart attack symptoms.

Heart attacks on TV or the big screen tend to go something like this: The victim clutches his chest and falls to his knees. Although these scenes can be dramatic, they can also be misleading.

"Classic heart attack symptoms, like crushing chest pain and pain in the arm, may be classic for men," says family physician Judy Chamberlain, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians' board of directors. "But women often have more subtle symptoms, such as shortness of breath, a burning sensation, or palpitations. They often feel something new and sense that it isn't right, but don't know what it is."

The nation's leading killer, heart disease claims more women than men every year. Women are also more likely than men to die in the first year following a heart attack. Yet many women don't realize heart disease is the main threat to their health. "It scares me that women worry more about breast cancer than their hearts," Dr. Chamberlain says.

Greater impact

Smoking and drinking are more dangerous for women.

Tobacco is deadly to both men and women, yet smoking can take a worse toll on women. Women who smoke are more likely to have a heart attack than men who smoke, the SWHR says. Women who smoke are also more likely to develop diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, and lung disease, including lung cancer. Nonsmoking women face a greater risk for lung cancer than nonsmoking men.

What's worse, quitting smoking is tougher for women. Women have more severe withdrawal symptoms. And although men are addicted to the nicotine, women find it harder to give up both the nicotine and the physical habit.

A woman younger than 50 who drinks the same amount of alcohol as a man of the same age will get drunker because more alcohol will reach her blood. That's because women produce less of a stomach enzyme that digests alcohol. The less alcohol that is digested, the more that ends up in the blood.

Drinking also puts a woman at higher risk for breast cancer, hearts problems, and stroke. It is also more difficult for a woman who regularly drinks to become pregnant.

Mental health

Women are more likely to be clinically depressed or have an anxiety disorder.

When women are down in the dumps, they may think they should just snap out of it. Often it's not that easy.

The incidence of depression is rising in women. In fact, women are two to three times more likely than men to face the destructive effects of depression. Women also experience depression differently from men: Women are more likely to have sleep and appetite problems. Depression is also a serious health threat at times when women expect to be happiest: during and after pregnancy.

Women are much more likely to have an anxiety disorder and have panic attacks, the SWHR says.

Response to drugs

Women may react differently to certain medications.

Women usually weigh less than men, but have more body fat. They also have smaller organs. These differences may affect how a woman's body reacts to medication, the SWHR says.

Certain high blood pressure medications and antibiotics are more effective in women. A woman's menstrual cycle can affect the way some antidepressants work. Anesthesia isn't as effective in women. They wake up more quickly and are much more likely to say they were awake during surgery.

Women also take more medications that do men. This puts them at higher risk for drug interactions, the SWHR says.

Significant changes

Women's health needs change more during life.

Women face a host of health concerns depending on whether they are in puberty, the reproductive years, or menopause. "Our bodies change more significantly during our life span," Dr. Klein says. "Where we are in our life span should affect the way we look at our health."

At different stages of women's lives, they may grapple with contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, reproductive issues, depression, heart disease, cervical cancer, breast cancer, incontinence, and osteoporosis. And because women live longer than men, women are more likely to live with chronic diseases and meet the challenges of aging alone.

Less attention

Women put their own health on the back burner.

Many women take care of children, husbands, aging parents, and sometimes even pets before they tend to their own health. But experts say ignoring personal needs is dangerous.

"We can't be stressed out meeting everyone else's needs and expect to stay healthy," says Dr. Chamberlain. "Going to the doctor regularly isn't enough. It's vital that we put ourselves first sometimes and take care of our health."

Knowing the role gender plays in health can empower women to live healthier lives. Experts say women need to educate themselves, be proactive about their health, and take their health concerns to their doctors.

"We can add life to our years by eating right, moving our bodies, and not smoking or quitting smoking," says Dr. Marts. "The key to combating chronic diseases is chronic prevention."

Other health differences

According to the SWHR, these health problems are more likely in women:

  • Asthma. Women also are more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to die from asthma.
  • Obesity. Hormonal changes may play a role.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Macular degeneration. The risk increases if a woman smokes.
  • Osteoporosis. Women make up 80 percent of the people with this bone-weakening disease.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases. Symptoms often are not obvious, so many women may not know they have an STD.
  • Insomnia. Hormones, pregnancy, and menopause all have an effect on sleep.
  • Autoimmune diseases. These include lupus and multiple sclerosis.